Do Your Christmas Shopping Here!

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big picture stuff

I just realized Amazon is having a 30 percent off any book sale that ends midnight tonight, so you have just a few hours to buy up copies of Rethinking Religion to give as Christmas presents at 30 percent off!

Also, if you buy other stuff at Amazon, if you go through the link in the right-hand column they give me a few cents for whatever you buy.

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The Myth of Individualism

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big picture stuff

I very much like this essay at the New York Times, “Evolution and the American Myth of the Individual” by John Edward Terrell. It ties together a lot of my themes.

At least part of the schism between Republicans and Democrats is based in differing conceptions of the role of the individual. We find these differences expressed in the frequent heated arguments about crucial issues like health care and immigration. In a broad sense, Democrats, particularly the more liberal among them, are more likely to embrace the communal nature of individual lives and to strive for policies that emphasize that understanding. Republicans, especially libertarians and Tea Party members on the ideological fringe, however, often trace their ideas about freedom and liberty back to Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries, who argued that the individual is the true measure of human value, and each of us is naturally entitled to act in our own best interests free of interference by others. Self-described libertarians generally also pride themselves on their high valuation of logic and reasoning over emotion.

I’ve written before about the fact that our economy is a web of interconnections, and that the failure of part of it hurts the whole eventually. Allowing cities like New Orleans and Detroit rot; allowing families to be buried by medical bills; ripping the safety net so that lots of people fall into destitution and can’t get out; these things put a strain on the entire economic ecosystem, and with enough strain it all comes apart and hurts everyone. But righties can’t see that; they just think taxes are taking money away from me and giving it to someone else.

I’ve also written before about the utter obliviousness of Ayn Randbots, who sit in chairs somebody else crafted,  in homes supported by networks of utilities other people made and maintain, keyboarding through internet connections they couldn’t reproduce if they tried, and to anyone who will listen, that they don’t need ANYBODY ELSE. Take away the cocoon of civilization and these bozos probably wouldn’t survive the week. Yeah, go Galt, buddy. Please.

 Philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel have emphasized that human beings are essentially social creatures, that the idea of an isolated individual is a misleading abstraction. So it is not just ironic but instructive that modern evolutionary research, anthropology, cognitive psychology and neuroscience have come down on the side of the philosophers who have argued that the basic unit of human social life is not and never has been the selfish, self-serving individual. Contrary to libertarian and Tea Party rhetoric, evolution has made us a powerfully social species, so much so that the essential precondition of human survival is and always has been the individual plus his or her relationships with others.

We are not only physically dependent on each other but psychologically dependent as well. There is all kinds of data and real-world experience showing that actual isolation is devastating to a human. Prolonged isolation from other humans literally drives us mad. Indeed, our personalities — the traits we think make us uniquely “me” — are (to the psychologist and sociologists who study these things) entirely about how we relate to other humans. If there are no other humans to relate to, personalities cannot be expressed and arguably don’t even exist.

One of my favorite exercises — describe who you are as an individual without reference to a position within some kind of social or economic network. In other words, describe who you are as an individual without reference to family, nation, profession, interests (sports? stamp collecting? messing around on the Web?) or anything that doesn’t require other people. I say it can’t be done.

So, in a sense, we cannot be “individuals” without society. Our social network defines our individuality and allows our individuality to express itself. We cannot be who we are without other people being who they are.

I want to go back to “Self-described libertarians generally also pride themselves on their high valuation of logic and reasoning over emotion.” This is another bit of elaborate hooey that’s been around for a long time. One doesn’t hear it as much any more, but the old line was that men are logical and women are emotional, which is why men ought to run things because women can’t make responsible decisions. This may explain why 90 percent of homicides are perpetrated by men … oh, wait …

And there’s another claim that is heard much less often after World War II than before, that white Teutonic or Anglo-Saxon people are logical and all those simple brown natives are emotional. The pattern is that if you can claim your decisions are based on “logic” and not “emotions,” you win. The problem is that, in retrospect, the pattern of Teutonic/Anglo Saxon behavior throughout history doesn’t reveal a preponderance of wisdom or sensible, dispassionate judgment. Aggression, yes. Greed and arrogance, you bet. Wisdom, not so much.

This is not to say that European civilization hasn’t created some wonderful stuff, but the cultures of other continents have created some wonderful stuff, also. Humans can do amazing things sometimes. However, show me someone who claims he is entirely rational and logical, and I will show you someone who is out of touch with his own emotions.

I’ve written elsewhere about Moral Foundation theory and how much research in psychology and sociology reveals that emotions are jerking all of us around, whether we admit it or not. Moral Foundation theory says that our moral decisions are really being generated in our subconscious, which sends emotional cues — sometimes subtle ones, but emotional nonetheless — to our conscious mind, which then crafts rational reasons for why we believe as we do.

In other words, all of that logic and reasoning is strictly post hoc and called in to serve the demands of emotion. We believe as we do because it pleases us (literally) to believe as we do. We join mass movements or adhere to political views because they stoke our egos and reinforce our biases. And then the more deluded among us think up “rational” reasons for all of it and deny the role of emotions. Because, you know, emotions are for girls.

Terrell continues,

This conclusion is unlikely to startle anyone who is at all religious or spiritual. When I was a boy I was taught that the Old Testament is about our relationship with God and the New Testament is about our responsibilities to one another. I now know this division of biblical wisdom is too simple. I have also learned that in the eyes of many conservative Americans today, religion and evolution do not mix. You either accept what the Bible tells us or what Charles Darwin wrote, but not both. The irony here is that when it comes to our responsibilities to one another as human beings, religion and evolution nowadays are not necessarily on opposite sides of the fence. And as Matthew D. Lieberman, a social neuroscience researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, has written: “we think people are built to maximize their own pleasure and minimize their own pain. In reality, we are actually built to overcome our own pleasure and increase our own pain in the service of following society’s norms.”

While I do not entirely accept the norms clause of Lieberman’s claim, his observation strikes me as evocatively religious.

To me, there is no starker proof of the basic irrationality of Teabaggerism than the way so many manage to combine rigid, by-the-Holy-Book religious views with Ayn Rand’s “objectivism.” This is not just because Rand was an atheist. It’s because you can pretty much take anything Jesus ever said in the Gospels and compare it to Rand, and see clearly that Rand’s views are completely opposite Christ’s. There may be exceptions, but I can’t think of one. Rand’s views are also completely opposite those of the Buddha, which hasn’t stopped a few people from creating a Rand-Dharma hybrid called “dark Buddhism” or sometimes “dark Zen.” That this movement is pretty much a pubescent reaction to and denial of everything the Buddha taught shouldn’t surprise you.

Rand made a mistake commonly made by unthinking people — she assumed that if one ideology is bad, then the good must be its opposite. So Communism, with its denial of individual rights and the value of each person is bad, then the good must be untrammeled individualism. So Rand dismissed communities and societies as a “tribal premise” and denied that even activities such as trade and commerce should be about anything but individuals looking out for themselves. Yeah, try having an “economy” all by yourself.

Skipping a few bits of Terrell’s essay, which I recommend reading, we get to the Enlightenment philosophers. Now, on the whole I like the Enlightenment philosophers, because they are the ones who inspired the Declaration of Independence and the modern democratic ideal. But Terrell has a point here —

According to Rousseau and others, our responsibilities and duties to one another as members of society do not come from nature, but instead from our social conventions. Their speculations about the origins of the latter generally asserted that the most ancient of all societies was the family. Yet in their eyes, even the family as a social unit was seen as ephemeral. As Rousseau wrote: “children remain attached to the father only so long as they need him for their preservation. As soon as this need ceases, the natural bond is dissolved.” When released from obedience to their father, the next generation is free to assume a life of singular freedom and independence. Should any child elect to remain united with the family of his birth, he did so “no longer naturally, but voluntarily; and the family itself is then maintained only by convention.”

In fairness to Rousseau it should be noted, as I observed earlier, that he may not have meant such claims to be taken literally. As he remarked in his discourse “On the Origin of Inequality,” “philosophers, who have inquired into the foundations of society, have all felt the necessity of going back to a state of nature; but not one of them has got there.” Why then did Rousseau and others make up stories about human history if they didn’t really believe them? The simple answer, at least during the Enlightenment, was that they wanted people to accept their claim that civilized life is based on social conventions, or contracts, drawn up at least figuratively speaking by free, sane and equal human beings — contracts that could and should be extended to cover the moral and working relationships that ought to pertain between rulers and the ruled. In short, their aims were political, not historical, scientific or religious.

Terrell is an anthropologist, so the notion of family as not originating in nature must seem particularly bizarre to him. Fossil and anthropological evidence shows us that hominids have lived in family groups since at least Australopithecus afarensis, if not earlier. We would not have survived otherwise.

Terrell then argues that what the Enlightenment philosophers wrote has morphed into a kind of primitive mythology that has become holy to the Teabaggers. As I wrote in Rethinking Religion, this has resulted in the bizarre spectacle of people submerged in a dogmatic mass movement,  marching around wearing tricorner hats and carrying “don’t tread on me” signs to demonstrate how “individual” they are.

Terrell concludes,

The sanctification of the rights of individuals and their liberties today by libertarians and Tea Party conservatives is contrary to our evolved human nature as social animals. There was never a time in history before civil society when we were each totally free to do whatever we elected to do. We have always been social and caring creatures. The thought that it is both rational and natural for each of us to care only for ourselves, our own preservation, and our own achievements is a treacherous fabrication. This is not how we got to be the kind of species we are today. Nor is this what the world’s religions would ask us to believe. Or at any rate, so I was told as a child, and so I still believe.

I’ve argued for a long time that the ideal is a kind of balance between the needs and interests of individuals and communities/societies, and when one of these is weighted more heavily than the other there will be dysfunction. But Terrell makes a good point that this idea of untrammeled individualism is, in fact, antithetical to all of the world’s great religions, and it’s interesting to me that so much of right-wing Christianity in America is oblivious to that. Somehow, in their minds, laissez-faire capitalism and the Holy Free Market, blessed be It, are ordained by God and inextricable from Jesus’ teachings. Which makes no sense at all.

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Stuff to Read

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blogging

Facing end of the month deadlines; here’s some stuff to read —

Why Sherman Was Right to Burn Atlanta.” Although I disagree with the War Nerd that Crazy Bill was the war’s greatest general, he was right about the message Sherman was trying to send the South. We may need to re-send it one of these days …

Pigs on a plane?  — And the moral is, if you need an “emotional support animal” while you travel, I suggest something small and easily portable, like a hamster. And I suspect this guy needed a lot more than an emotional support animal.

Paul Krugman — Why Republicans are pro-pollution.

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Happy Black Friday

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blogging

No one has been crushed to death in a Wal-Mart yet, but the day is young.

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Happy T Day

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holiday

My son is cooking, so I am being lazy. Have a lovely day, however you are spending it.

 

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Ferguson

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Obama Administration

I did tune in to watch part of the announcement of the Michael Brown shooting decision last night. Although I wasn’t expecting otherwise, the announcement was such an obvious exercise in ass covering I changed channels before they got to the official announcement. Some politicians need to do a better job of faking sincerity.

Charles Pierce wrote,

Right from the beginning, when Governor Jay Nixon refused to name a special prosecutor and left the case in the hands of Bob McCulloch, the greasy and hopelessly conflicted local district attorney, this case was headed for the biggest public fix since the 1919 World Series. The people in Ferguson knew it. The police knew it. Even Nixon knew it; he declared a state of emergency a week before the grand jury’s decision was handed down. McCulloch simply abandoned his duties as a prosecutor and dumped the evidence on the members if the grand jury without giving them any direction at all. Both of them relied, tacitly, on the fact that they knew the benefits they all would get of the thousand doubts that we give to the people we empower to take another person’s life — “under the color of law,” as the legal jargon has it, and in this case that couldn’t be more ironic.

See also Betty Cracker’s comments on witness # 40.

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Texas Textbooks Up the Crazy

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Obama Administration

The infamous Texas textbook adoption committee has just approved new social studies books for the state’s public schools.

Critics said that some of the government and world history textbooks, for example, exaggerate the influence of biblical figures — such as Moses and Solomon — on the nation’s founding and Western political tradition. A few of the books include material that critics said  undermines the constitutional concept of the separation of church and state. They say some world geography textbooks give short shrift to the role that conquest played in the spread of humanity while at the same time negatively portraying Islam and Muslims. Others criticized some of the books as being too sympathetic to Muslims, revealing the spectrum of political views among the critics.

I don’t know how much of these claims are accurate:

Christian conservatives win, children lose: Texas textbooks will teach public school students that the Founding Fathers based the Constitution on the Bible, and the American system of democracy was inspired by Moses.

On Friday the Republican-controlled Texas State Board of Education voted along party lines 10-5 to approve the biased and inaccurate textbooks. The vote signals a victory for Christian conservatives in Texas, and a disappointing defeat for historical accuracy and the education of innocent children.

The textbooks were written to align with instructional standards that the Board of Education approved back in 2010 with the explicit intention of forcing social studies teaching to adhere to a conservative Christian agenda. The standards require teachers to emphasize America’s so called “Christian heritage.”

In essence, Christian conservatives in Texas have successfully forced a false historical narrative into public school textbooks that portray Moses as an influence on the Constitution and the Old Testament as the root of democracy.

On the bright side, apparently some passages denying climate change were toned down.

Also I found it interesting that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt pulled out of the review process at the last minute.

According to the latest documents posted publicly, the publisher declined to make changes in its government textbook that would add greater coverage of Judeo-Christian influence — including Moses — on America’s founding fathers.

A Houghton Mifflin representative said the company decided to remove the book, which did not meet all Texas curriculum standards, from the state’s process because the text was designed for a national market.

I wish I still had contacts in the textbook industry. I’m guessing that HMH decided that publishing a Texas-only edition wasn’t profitable enough to bother about. Otherwise they’d probably give Texas whatever it wanted.

For years publishers have been cranking out Texas editions in a way that required a simple black plate change on the presses. In other words, usually the national and Texas editions looked identical, page for page, but here and there “national” text was swapped out and replaced by Texas-specific text when required. Or, in some cases, a blank space in the national edition would be filled by Texas-specific text in the Texas edition. But this can only be done if the differences between the Texas and national edition are minor. If the differences require the Texas edition to have its own page layouts and features, the cost of cranking out a separate edition go up quite a bit, and HMH must have decided the textbooks would be unsalable in other states.

However, I also understand that textbook publishers are phasing out the big honking expensive textbook series that I used to produce and moving toward providing digital content, making boutique textbooks a lot more affordable.

The textbook industry these days is pretty much dominated by just three companies — Harcourt Houghton Mifflin, McGraw Hill and Pearson — so one of them deciding to not play the Texas textbook committee’s games is pretty significant.

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Capture the Agency!

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Obama Administration

The “capture” of federal regulatory agencies by industry insiders has been going on for awhile and is one of the several hundred reasons government doesn’t work for the people any more. It peaked during the Bush II Administration, in which Dubya and Co. pretty much invited industry insiders to regulate themselves and even write laws benefiting themselves.

Early on President Obama’s choices for regulatory agency heads were a big improvement. But for most of his administration Republicans have cut funding for regulatory agencies and were able to block many appointments until Harry Reid dropped the nuclear option in the Senate a year ago.  I believe some agencies are still without heads, though.

But dang if the House hasn’t kicked agency capturing up a notch. It passed a bill that would — get this — restrict scientists from testifying on their own research to the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board, but would pave the way for corporate paid shills experts to testify instead. Lindsay Abrams writes,

The bill is being framed as a play for transparency: Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, arguedthat the board’s current structure is problematic because it  “excludes industry experts, but not officials for environmental advocacy groups.” The inclusion of industry experts, he said, would right this injustice.

But the White House, which threatened to veto the bill, said it would “negatively affect the appointment of experts and would weaken the scientific independence and integrity of the SAB.”

In what might be the most ridiculous aspect of the whole thing, the bill forbids scientific experts from participating in “advisory activities” that either directly or indirectly involve their own work. In case that wasn’t clear: experts would be forbidden from sharing their expertise in their own research — the bizarre assumption, apparently, being that having conducted peer-reviewed studies on a topic would constitute a conflict of interest. “In other words,” wrote Union of Concerned Scientists director Andrew A. Rosenberg in an editorial for RollCall, “academic scientists who know the most about a subject can’t weigh in, but experts paid by corporations who want to block regulations can.”

President Obama is threatening to veto this bill if it gets past the Senate. If he does, watch the Fox News bloviators scream about the President stifling science. See also House Republicans Pass Yet Another Underhanded Attack on Science.

Republicans are forever telling us they are not scientists.

For now, “I’m not a scientist” is what one party adviser calls “a temporary Band-Aid” — a way to avoid being called a climate change denier but also to sidestep a dilemma. The reality of campaigning is that a politician who acknowledges that burning coal and oil contributes to global warming must offer a solution, which most policy experts say should be taxing or regulating carbon pollution and increasing government spending on alternative energy. But those ideas are anathema to influential conservative donors like the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch and the advocacy group they support, Americans for Prosperity.

We’re perpetually being told the two major parties are just alike, but while the Dems have their flaws, I can’t see them doing anything this blatantly corrupt.

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Dem Jellyfish Syndrome

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Democratic Party, Obama Administration

The 2012 Democratic convention, with its ringing calls for economic populism and commitment to civil liberties, had me persuaded that Dems had finally grown spines. But now, reflecting on the midterm loss, it seems they’re reverted to being invertebrates again.

After the midterms a great many people pointed out that the Dem candidates who lost often were the ones who ran furthest and fastest from President Obama’s record. Of course, we’re told over and over again that President Obama is “unpopular.” And why is that? Jeff Schweitzer wrote shortly after the election that public perceptions of the Obama Administration have been painted by Republicans and often bear little resemblance to, you know, what the Administration actually is doing.

But I can’t lay blame just on those lying weasel Republicans, because the Obama Administration itself has failed to connect with people and make the case for its own accomplishments. This is partly because the Dems lack the media infrastructure the Right has built, and partly because the allegedly leftist media still allows right-wing voices to dominate talk shows and opinion pages. But it’s also the case that Dems turn into jellyfish way too easily.

Kevin Baker writes,

Today’s Democratic Party, with its finely calibrated, top-down fixes, does not offer anything so transformative. It seems scared of its own shadow, which is probably why it keeps reassuring itself that its triumph is inevitable. It needs instead to fully acknowledge just how devastating the recession was for working people everywhere in America, and what a generation of largely flat wages did to their aspirations even before that. It needs to take on hard fights, even against powerful forces, like pharmaceutical and insurance companies that presume to tell us the limits of what our health care can be or energy companies that would tell us what the world’s climate can endure. It means carving out a place of respect for working men and women in our globalized, finance-driven world.

Invite us to dream a little. You don’t build an enduring coalition out of who Americans are. You do it out of what we can be.

It may be that the GOP’s only message is to scare people to death, but at least it has a message.

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War on Christmas: Lock and Load

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Obama Administration

Sorry I’ve been absent; I’m hysterically busy these days. I’m cross-posting something I just wrote on my religion blog, so here’s something.

The Christmas television commercials preceded Halloween this year, and I see some of my neighbors have their Christmas decorations up already.

Yes, folks, the annual War on Christmas season has begun.

At Patheos, Zen teacher and Unitarian Universalist minister James Ford writes “Why I’m Afraid of Christians: Or the Briefest Meditation on Wishing Happy Holidays to All.”

There is something hanging in the back of my mind when living in a country dominated by a group of people who have an ideology that puts me at the moment of my death firmly into the fires of hell for, well, forever. And it’s hard not to be vaguely aware of how easy a step it is from seeing someone as firewood in the future to seeing one as killable in the present tense.

Of course, it isn’t the only example of this latent threat of violence. Politicians decrying that atheists can vote comes to mind, too. Pandering to the religious majority, with just a hint of violence in the air. Just a hint. And personally I don’t see much different in the historical rhetoric of jihad and crusade.

But the constant declarations today of people in the religious majority lamenting how they’ve been put upon by having to share space with people of other religions or none is the really scary thing. Violence against religious minorities is a once, and I see no reason to think not, a future thing.

How likely is it that reactionary Christians in the U.S. might become violent? Violence linked to religion is on the rise around the world, according to the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project. Is it possible religious violence might increase in the U.S. as well?

This may seem unlikely, but do see “Rumblings of Theocratic Violence” by Frederick Clarkson. Clarkson documents that there is indeed a large and well-connected subculture of extreme Christians in the U.S. who are calling for armed insurrection against the government. Some of these extremists are forging ties with the neo-confederate movement and forming paramilitary units.

As I wrote in Rethinking Religion, “religious” violence often is about something else and is just packaged as religion. What we’re seeing around the world is a lot of right-wing reactionism pushing back against cultural change and modernity generally, and for some reason right-wing reactionism these days likes to dress itself up as religion. Hence, a rise in what appears to be “religious” violence.

But there are two qualities found in most violent mass movements that need to be understood —

Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance. A mass movement offers them unlimited opportunities for both. — Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951)

I propose in Rethinking Religion that fervent belief in a holy cause — which doesn’t necessarily have to be religious — by itself doesn’t usually drive people into violence. A holy cause combined with a fanatical grievance, however, will do nicely. If you look at violent groups around the world today, I believe you will see they all harbor fanatical grievances. In their minds, they have been wronged and abused and are entitled to payback.

The last couple of posts, “’Religious Violence’ Isn’t Just Religious” and “The Christian Right’s Pitiful Rearguard Action” both discuss the way the U.S. religious Right cherishes a belief in its own martyrdom, and that holding them to the same anti-discrimination laws as everyone else amounts to discrimination against them. And this is what makes them dangerous. The stronger their sense of fanatical grievance, the more dangerous they are likely to become.

I’m not saying the U.S. religious Right is going to become as extremely dangerous as ISIS. The provocations are not quite so strong — we haven’t experienced war here since 1865, and have not suffered occupying foreign powers. But I think the threat they pose is real, and it’s a big reason their increasingly hysterical screams of martyrdom have me concerned.

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